[ETA: Some important concerns were raised after this post about Lulu and DTRPG, so I’m editing a brief summary of these concerns into this post under 3a.
This is also part of a series! Part 3 in this series can be found here.]
In my last post, I talked about why it’s not enough to tell women to get involved in game design through freelancing for a major game publisher; it’s important that women know that self-publishing is also an option, and frequently it’s the far more financially beneficial option.
This is going to be a more practical post, talking about the nuts-and-bolts of distribution as a self-publisher. Obviously this is largely informed by my experience as an (admittedly tiny) self-publishing game designer, and everyone’s situation is unique, and YMMV blah blah blah.
Also, I’ll note that this post is information-dense. So if you’re not super super interested in self-publishing, maybe go watch some goat videos.
Lastly, I had intended to also tackle the different funding models of actually assembling a finished game project, from crowdfunding to creative partnerships and all that. But this post ballooned far beyond what I thought it would be, so that will have to wait for my next post because I have a lot to say about that! And I also want to talk about using Patreon to support serial-format game content, which may or may not fit in with my next post, so we’ll have to see what happens.
The changing face of self-publishing
I published my first game (Thou Art But A Warrior) in 2008, which feels like the Dark Ages now that I look back on those experiences. Crowdfunding didn’t exist. Drive Thru RPG was still a nascent force in indie publishing, hardly the juggernaut of market-share that it is now; Indie Press Revolution was the major arbiter of “hip, cool” indie TRPGs. And most importantly, PDF sales weren’t a thing that most indie publishers bothered worrying about; the iPhone had only been out for a year at that point, and the tablet market was still a twinkle in some marketer’s eye.
Determined to save money by doing everything myself, I did my own art and laid the book out myself in Word. (Oh god was that a mistake. Don’t ever ever do that.) Even then, the initial print run of 100 books cost me $400ish (it was a pretty small book), and then I had to take them to GenCon – which is itself no small expense – to spend my convention running endless demos. And even then my costs were comparatively tiny! Being able to do my own art took off a significant expense. And being able to rely on my husband’s editing “for free” removed another significant expense.
(…yeah, yeah. I know how this sounds. Bear with me! This is going somewhere.)
Anyway, the point that I’m making is that publishing “back then” came with a pretty high barrier to entry. In addition to being someone who could afford to take the time to write a game, get it playtested, get it revised through multiple drafts, and have the bandwidth to deal with the nightmare that is printing – you also had to be able to sink a lot of money into a game that had no guarantee of selling. Every time you self-published a game, you were taking the risk that all of your time, effort, and money would vanish and all you’d be left with was a box of books in your living room.
So it’s not terribly surprising that the horde of self-published game designers that were pimping their games at the IPR booth that year were a rather… monochromatic bunch of people.
Thankfully – as new self-publishing tools have been created, that barrier to entry has gotten lower, and lower, and lower. Which brings us to right now, when it has literally never been easier to publish your own shit.
So now let’s talk about how to get that done.
The current self-publishing landscape
(It’s important to note here that I will not be talking about how to make a finished game, for the most part. I’ll touch on art, editing, and layout as expenses that need to be considered and planned for, but as for “how to make a game that is polished and professional” – that’s an entirely different subject that people far more qualified than I have written extensively about.)
Self-publishing in 2015 is vastly different than in 2008, and it can take many different forms. As a publisher, you can put as much or as little time into your publishing as you want. So I’m going to go through the different “levels” of self-publishing as a one-person operation, though please note that “higher level” does not equate with “better”. “Higher level” simply means a greater investment of time, resources, and creative bandwidth.
Level 1: No books, just PDFs
This is what I think of as “entry-level publishing”. With tablets growing increasingly common at the table, PDF is now its own viable market segment – although it’s worth noting that the availability of PDF is never going to replace the demand for books.
At this level, all you really need is a game to publish, a website, and either a storefront or a distributor (or both).
1) The Game
Now when I say “a game to publish”, it’s important to note that I don’t necessarily mean a complete roleplaying game with original setting and mechanical system. Hell no! Instead you could have a fully-fleshed out setting, or a small game that does a small but very specific thing, or a standalone hack of someone else’s game, or even a small hack of someone else’s game that doesn’t stand on its own. Whatever! If it is a game or helps other people play games, it counts.
2) The Website
Thankfully, this too is far easier than it used to be. There are a number of hosting services that use drag-and-drop content management systems that allow you to create slick, professional-looking websites without having to know a lick of HTML. Personally, I use SquareSpace (they are not paying me to endorse them) – their hosting rates are cheap, their templates attractive and easy to use, and if you pay a year at a time it includes a free domain name. I’ve been with them more than 2 years and never had any hiccups in service. (There are other similar services out there if you want to shop around – I just can’t comment on them.)
Even if you are someone who knows HTML and web design, a service like SquareSpace is awesome because it just saves so much time.
3) The storefront/distributor
The easiest and cheapest way to handle this is to put a PayPal button on your website and email PDFs to customers yourself as your orders come in. I do a little of this – right now I’m only selling Thou Art But a Warrior through my UnStore, mostly because I’m also trying to get rid of my last dead-tree copies. However, this option is also the least visible. So either you’ll need to do self-promotion to offset this, or you’ll want to consider using multiple distribution channels. (Which you probably should! But more on that in a second.)
One additional, unfortunate complication to the selling-through-your-website model is that as of January 1st of this year, the new EU VAT rules basically mean that self-publishers can’t sell PDFs directly to their European customers.
Thankfully, PayHip is a storefront service that will handle VAT for you! They’ll take 5% of each sale, but really 5% is more than worth it for not having to deal with the VAT yourself. And what you get is a pretty slick looking storefront with some pretty decent analytics and social media tools built in.
However! PayHip still doesn’t do your self-promotion for you! And if that matters to you, you may want to look into a larger distribution channel like Drive Thru RPG or Indie Press Revolution. (And since they’d be doing the distribution, VAT would ultimately be their problem, not yours.) DTRPG will give you 65% of net profit as a non-exclusive publisher, and 70% if you publish with them exclusively. IPR doesn’t charge as much in royalties – they take 20% of cover price for all PDF sales. But then, their sales aren’t as large as DTRPG, so that’s a judgement call you’ll have to make.
It’s worth noting that DTRPG is huge, and has an enormous customer base. Many DTRPG customers will only purchase game PDFs through DTRPG so that their game libraries are effectively centralized in one location that they have access to away from home. So there are a lot of sales that you will only capture through DTRPG. However, DTRPG also takes a lot more of your money.
A good way to balance this is to launch a new game through your website and/or storefront of choice, and only release on DTRPG after a month or two when initial sales have peaked and started to taper off. (This was the approach I took for SexyTime adventures and I wound up doubling the number of copies sold.)
Of course, if all of that sounds like too much of a hassle, and it might, there’s nothing wrong with publishing exclusively with DTRPG and linking your website over there. Ultimately, you have to do the personal calculus and decide if the return on investment is worth it for anything beyond that.
3a) Important caveats (edited in after initial post)
In the comments, Wendy makes an excellent point about the danger of using Lulu in that they will attempt to hard sell you on a variety of services that you should not pay for. Please read the full comment here.
It’s also worth noting that there are quality reasons not to use DriveThru RPG’s printing service; The quality of DTRPG’s paper at their non-premium printing levels isn’t as good as what is used by Lulu. Also important – DTRPG doesn’t allow for bleeds! For more information, check out this thread on StoryGames comparing POD services. In particular, make sure you read the posts by Johnstone Metzger. Many thanks to Ryan Macklin for making me aware of this, as I have only used DTRPG for PDF and not for print.
Level 2: Books
Books are something that are never going to go away, period. So it’s worth considering that as an option, because some people won’t buy a game if they can’t get a book. (Although it’s worth noting that Print + PDF is becoming the standard for a lot of indie outfits, as increasingly people like having an option of owning a book but not having to haul around the extra weight at a convention.) But of course, books means printing as well as shipping, which ups the nuisance factor considerably.
But if books is a thing you want to do, then here’s what that can look like:
1) Sell books through website/storefront, mail them yourself
This is originally what most of self-publishing looked like, and it can still be viable if you’re willing to put up with a lot of hassle. Shipping books yourself means you’re not paying handling fees to someone else to do it for you. However. This also requires you to keep physical copies around your house, as well as mailing supplies. And you need to be able to take time to make semi-regular trips to the post office. It is time consuming, to say nothing of space-consuming. And if you live in Canada, Canada Post’s absolutely ridiculous postage rates are going to preclude you from doing this. (I have someone in the States who ships my print copies of TABAW for me.)
Most importantly, however, this model means that you will have to have gone to the trouble of getting it printed yourself, which is no small task. And that means either sinking in money up front, or funding a print run plus extras through crowdfunding, which we’ll come back to. So increasingly, people are ditching this model in favor of #2.
1a) Print books, send them to a distributor who will sell/ship them for you
There are several distributors who do this for small indie publishers. Indie Press Revolution was the first, and the only distributor I have any direct experience with. (I stopped using IPR several years ago.) However, it may be worth considering if you want to save money on printing costs but don’t want to or can’t mail books yourself.
Importantly, distributors like IPR sell to retailers – which means that you could potentially get your game into local game stores. However, with IPR retail sales are made at 55% of cover, with the remaining profit being split 80/20 – leaving you with 44% of your cover price as compared to 70% of cover for direct print sales. So you may decide that retail sales using this model aren’t worth it to you, since you’re “losing money” as compared to a direct-to-the-customer print sale. Or you may decide that the reduced royalty is worth the extra exposure. It’s your call.
However, while this model saves you from dealing with shipping, it still doesn’t save you from dealing with printers. Which is why more publishers are shifting to…
2) Upload a print-ready PDF to a platform that will print-on-demand for you
Drive Thru RPG is great for this, because you can upload one print-ready file and set different options for how people can buy it. So you set price levels for PDF, for black and white, for color softcover, color hardcover, etc etc etc. And when people order a print copy, DTRPG prints it on demand and mails it for you, and you get the royalties without ever having to go to the post office.
Which, as someone who has dealt with printers, let me tell you this is something you should strongly consider. Printers are either 1) glacially slow or 2) amazingly talented at fucking things up. No exceptions.
Lulu is an alternative for those interested in the “not needing to handle books” model of selling books. They charge a flat price for printing, you set the cover price and get the difference. However, using Lulu comes with the same disadvantage as selling only through your website. If you want your game to sell well, you’re going to have to put extra work into promoting it.
Most dead-tree print runs these days are being funded through crowdfunding, because as noted previously, printing is expensive. And as shipping costs sky rocket, publishers handling dead-tree books need to be able to make sure their costs will be covered. However, this post is already long enough, so crowdfunding will have to wait until next time.
 Being married to your editor is both a blessing and a curse. It’s impossible to grumpily ignore your editor when they give you brutal edits if they live in your house.
 Actually, dealing with printers isn’t any better now than it was in 2008. Even when you’re dealing with a good printer, the process still sucks.
 Much of what I say might not apply to medium sized indie operations like Bully Pulpit.
 No more coding lightbox galleries manually! Whee!